The sin of slander

V’al chet she-hatanu l’fanekha bil’shon ha-ra, “And for the sin we have committed before You through slander” — over the course of Yom Kippur we say these words over and over again as we recite the Viddui (Confessional) quietly to ourselves and then aloud communally. As we say them, we beat our breasts to physically hammer home the meaning of the words we say.  In fact, sins of the tongue represent the most common single category of transgression in the Al Chet confessional.

Unfortunately, President Barack Obama and Gov. Mitt Romney, along with most of their political operatives and the funders and staffs of the super PACs who support them, will not be sitting in shul all day on Yom Kippur and will not hear or say these words and allow their meaning to seep into their brains and souls. And so, I fear that over the course of the campaigning of the coming weeks, the slandering that has become a hallmark of the political process in the 21st century will continue unabated. I believe that, given the immediate and wide-ranging impact of today’s electronic media, the political divisiveness that we are witnessing today is, to a considerable degree, a result of the vitriolic defamation of character and proffering of half-truths that have come to dominate the rhetoric of our political process. 

Some will say that the ends justify the means, and, in order to get the right people into office so as to develop the correct public policy, almost any tactic is “kosher.” I disagree strongly with this approach. For a democracy to work, it must be based on the principle of respect for one’s political opponent and the understanding that in a democracy there will be many opinions expressed — otherwise it becomes a tyranny. In a democracy, respect, negotiation and compromise are the only way the needs of the people can be served in the long run. If we demean a person with whom we disagree, then we lose respect for that person and we can become more than political opponents — we can become enemies. Enemies harm one another. Enemies do not work together to solve problems — indeed, their enmity creates more problems.

Our rabbis teach us that Jerusalem fell to the Romans because of baseless hatred within the Jewish community of Eretz Yisrael. Slander leads to hatred.  Hatred leads to weakness. Weakness results in defeat. What America needs now, more than ever, is not a fractured polity, but a polity that can unite and work together for the greater good. The sin of slander, lashon harah, prevents that from happening and must be excised from our political campaigns. Please convey this message to the leaders of the political party you support, and remind them of the words of Torah (Deuteronomy 16:20) with which we are all familiar: “Justice, justice you shall pursue” — the means must be in agreement with the end, and the pursuit of justice must be accomplished justly, not with lies (R. Simcha Bunim).

Rabbi Joel Rembaum is rabbi emeritus at Temple Beth Am.

Fear of an Obama Planet grips some Americans

As soon as I saw The New Yorker cover spoofing right-wing fear mongering over Barack and Michelle Obama, my first thought was that my friend, Sanjay, in Mumbai, India, hada point about Americans and stupidity.

What was it but stupidity that left so many Americans gullible to right-wing accusations that Obama was that turban-wearing, Osama bin Laden-loving Muslim on the magazine’s cover, bumping fists with his militant, rifle-toting wife, Michelle, as the American flag burned in their fireplace.

Where was Barry Blitt’s cartoon months ago, when a loud “So what?” might have nipped in the bud those ridiculous “Obama is a secret Muslim” rumors? So this Muslim, at least, was relieved to see the stupidity lampooned so starkly.

But as soon as I began to revel in the caricature, a little dismayed hand-wringing began. Because now the very people who were offended by right-wing accusations about Obama were acting offended by a cartoon lampooning those very same right-wing machinations. It is as if America has gone mad, or worse, gone brainless.

I remember a dinner-table conversation in Mumbai a couple of weeks ago when Sanjay — an architect and businessman — turned to me quite earnestly to proclaim, “Americans are inherently stupid.”

“How do you live with them?” he asked.

There we were — an Indian and an Egyptian — discussing America over dinner at the Royal Yacht Club, built by British colonialists for the enjoyment of white privilege and off limits to us brown people back when they ruled India.

Then Manique, a Sri Lankan woman, joined the conversation to tell us that during a visit to the United States a few years ago, someone actually asked her if they had bread in Sri Lanka. I asked her, half-jokingly, if it was the same American who asked my dad at an Athens hotel over dinner years ago whether we had fruit in Egypt.

More than just shocked amusement, these incidents show why all of us would vote for Obama if we could. He would never ask us if we had bread or fruit in our countries. Why? Obama is much like us. He has traveled. He has lived abroad. And he has family in several countries. He has a different script for what an American is. He is an American who is comfortable as a citizen of the world — with or without his lapel pin.

This is what makes the right-wing “secret Muslim” accusations and the stupid gullibility surrounding them all the more ludicrous and imperative to lampoon — just as Blitt does in this week’s New Yorker.

Those howls of “offensive” and “tasteless” flung at The New Yorker suggest to me Blitt’s ability to lampoon not just the right wing but even some on the left wing who have promoted fears about Obama.

Wasn’t it Hillary Clinton’s campaign that leaked pictures of Obama in Somali traditional garb, looking just like that crazy figure on the cover of The New Yorker? And didn’t Clinton herself suggest that white, working-class America wouldn’t vote for black, hypereducated Obama?

And wasn’t it The New York Times that published an op-ed by a right-wing commentator that was such an ignorant and embarrassing display, claiming that Obama wasn’t Muslim enough and would be hunted by Muslims because he had abandoned the faith of his father — who was an atheist, by the way.

Just as we were amused at how confounded Americans are that we, too, have bread and fruit in our countries, the Obamas confound because they don’t fit with in simplistic boxes meant to keep them securely in their place. They’re not at all the black stereotype, and it seems to scare the hell out of some Americans.

Jack White points out in an essay on The Root Web site: “We are all, including Obama, in a place we never really thought we would be, and it has knocked us off our feet. We don’t know how to act. We don’t have a plan. We’re searching for our equilibrium. And until we regain our footing, we can expect all sorts of bizarre behavior from people who ought to know better. Hold on to your hat.”

Which is why methinks the outrage over Blitt’s cartoon is less an issue of genuine offense and more a case of “the lady doth protest too much.” It touches on a fear of the world changing much too fast for many Americans to keep up.

The New Yorker cover ridicules an America that is being left behind, grappling with quaint notions of Muslims in regulation turban and white robe and militantly angry black women. And whether other countries have bread or fruit.

We, the children of a post-colonial world, don’t fear an Obama planet. It has been our world for a long time. We’re happy finally to see the growing success of one of our own.

No, I didn’t mean a Muslim. Stop hyperventilating.

Mona Eltahawy is an award-winning, New York-based journalist and commentator, and an international lecturer on Arab and Muslim issues.